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Pandemic Burnout in Academia

Virginia Gewin, writing for Nature:

Even before the pandemic, many researchers in academia were struggling with poor mental health. Desiree Dickerson, an academic mental-health consultant in Valencia, Spain, says that burnout is a problem inherent in the academic system: because of how narrowly it defines excellence, and how it categorizes and rewards success. “We need to reward and value the right things,” she says.

Yet evidence of empathetic leadership at the institutional level is in short supply, says Richard Watermeyer, a higher-education researcher at the University of Bristol, UK, who has been conducting surveys to monitor impacts of the pandemic on academia. Performative advice from employers to look after oneself or to leave one day a week free of meetings to catch up on work is pretty superficial, he says. Such counsel does not reduce work allocation, he points out.

Academia has a rampant problem in how it is professionally configured. To get even a short term contract, now, requires a CV that would have been worthy of tenure twenty or thirty years ago. Which means that, when someone is hired as an assistant professor (with a 3-6 year probation period) they are already usually more qualified than their peers of the past and have to be prolific in the work that they contribute to and output, and do so with minimal or no complaints so as to avoid any problems in their transition from assistant to associate professor (i.e., full-time and sometimes protected employee).

Once someone has gone through the gauntlet, they come to expect that others should go through it as well: if the current generation can cut it, then surely the next generation of hires should be able to as well if they’re as ‘good’ as the current generation. Which means that those who were forced into an unsustainable work environment that routinely eats into personal time, vacation time (i.e., time when you use vacation days to catch up on other work that otherwise is hard to get done), child rearing time, and so forth, expect that those following them do the same.

Add into this the fact that most academic units are semi-self governing, and those in governorship positions (e.g., department chairs, deans) tend to lack any actual qualifications in managing a largely autonomous workforce and cannot rebalance work loads in a systemically positive way so as to create more sustainable working environments. As a result of a lack of formal management skills, these same folks tend to be unable to identify the issues that might come up in a workforce/network of colleagues, and they are also not resourced to know how to actually treat the given problem. And all of this presumes they are motivated to find and resolve problems in the first place. This very premise is often found faulty, given that those who are governing are routinely most concerned with the smooth running of their units and, of course, may keep in mind any junior colleagues who happen to cause ‘problems’ by expecting assistance or consideration given the systemic overwork that is the normal work-life imbalance.

What’s required is a full-scale revolt in the very structure of university departments if work-life balance is to be truly valued, and if academics are to be able to satisfy their teaching, service, and research requirements in the designated number of working hours. While the job is often perceived as very generous–and it is, in a whole lot of ways!–because you (ideally) have parts of it that you love, expecting people to regularly have 50-75 hour work weeks, little real downtime, little time with family and friends, and being placed on a constant treadmill of outputs is a recipe for creating jaded, cynical, and burned out professionals. Sadly, that’s how an awful lot of contemporary departments are configured.

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